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Prophet Song by Paul Lynch: Totalitarian twists and turns

Booker-longlisted novel is set in a dystopian Ireland, where secret police have emergency powers

Prophet Song
Author: Paul Lynch
ISBN-13: 978 0 8615 4716 6
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Guideline Price: £16.99

It’s a bumper year for Ireland at the Booker Prize, with four of the 13 longlisted novels by Irish writers – our best tally in the prize’s history. Alongside Sebastian Barry, Elaine Feeney and Paul Murray sits Paul Lynch, who is no stranger to award shortlists for his previous four novels. His lyrical, meditative style was well-fitted to often historical settings, but his new novel is set in Ireland in either the near future or an alternative present.

In this Ireland there has been an unspecified “crisis facing the state”, which has allowed the government to establish emergency powers and create a secret police, the GNSB. We are, in other words, deep in dystopian hell – though shallow might be the better word. The best way of involving the reader in a world like this is through individual stories, and Lynch cleaves the reader close to the Stack family in Dublin.

They are Eilish Stack, a molecular biologist working in biotech, her husband Larry – deputy general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland – and their four children Mark, Molly, Bailey and Ben. The story opens in grand style – “The night has come and she has not heard the knocking” – as the cops arrive to take Larry in for questioning. Larry has been negotiating for better pay and conditions for teachers, and has been publicly vocal in his support. There is a tense scene where “sowing discord and unrest” battles “exercising my rights under the constitution”.

But Larry doesn’t come back from his interrogation and Eilish, however much she believes that “there would be outrage” if the police overstepped the mark, is about to learn that constitutional rights depend upon people in authority being willing to uphold them. That brings to mind the still-fresh story of Trump’s desecration of constitutional norms in the United States; and when Eilish, like a frog in slowly boiling water, hopes that everything will be fine and she won’t need to take the kids to Canada as others are doing, we think of Jews who didn’t flee Nazi Germany.


Indeed, there is no shortage of heavyweight analogies here, and some good dramatic scenes too: when the family home is sprayed in red paint with the word TRAITER (if the devil is in the detail, then that misspelling is the mot juste); when Eilish runs from hospital to hospital in search of bad news, and is greeted with even worse; and the last pages of the novel, which seem to give the whole story purpose by twisting the reader into a fresh perspective on a timely issue.

But as that implies, there is a lot lacking on the road to that ending. Mainly this comes in the way Lynch has chosen to tell the story: a fable-like style of run-on sentences and long unbroken paragraphs, which give the story the feel of a work in translation, the placelessness of a Kafka novel – except that details make it clear we’re in contemporary Ireland. “The end of the world is always a local event,” as one character puts it.

This specific setting therefore demands more in the way of details than we get. Everything is vague and muted: we never learn what the “crisis” is that has enabled the government power grab, and there is no charismatic leader portrayed who could have persuaded the people to accept it. As such the whole set-up lacks plausibility, which fatally limits how much we can feel threatened alongside Eilish and her family. This, like Lynch’s tendency to set up confrontations (such as one between Eilish and her new state-appointed boss) and then cut away from them, feels like a failure of nerve.

It is possible to render a dystopia without specifics – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road did it brilliantly – but Lynch has none of McCarthy’s hardness or brevity of language. His neologism-riddled style takes risks that sometimes pay off, but more often they don’t. For every inspired choice like the one in a butcher’s shop – “He spins a bag of sausages then necks it in the tape dispenser” – there are two or three head-scratchers like “She greys in a garden chair while the climbing roses bloom” or “She is suddened into the dark room”.

The problem is deepened by the novel’s odd pacing – at the start people seem to have little awareness of the new laws restricting their rights, yet within what appears to be a few weeks, they are living among bombing and shelling, with “oil-dark smoke rising from multiple sites”, electricity cut off and queues for water trucks. I wondered at times if the novel was intended to be a subjective insight into one woman’s mind, a dissolution which is not supposed to be reliable – but the early scene from Larry’s viewpoint rules that out.

There are things worth seeing here, and elements worth preserving – such as Eilish’s constant battle against the increasing unknowability of her children, which is often beautifully rendered – but overall, Prophet Song feels like a good idea squandered.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times